Some of the poorest elderly and disabled people admitted to this country on humanitarian grounds will lose their cash assistance in October unless they have naturalization applications pending, federal officials say.
FOR THE RECORD:
Aid to immigrants: An article in Monday's LATExtra section about plans to end Supplemental Security Income to some legal immigrants said California's Cash Assistance Program for Immigrants was open only to refugees and those granted asylum. A spokeswoman for the California Department of Social Services said she has since learned that other immigrants who were receiving federal SSI benefits may be eligible for the state program. —
Letters have been sent to 3,800 recipients of Supplemental Security Income, including some in California, warning them that their eligibility for the federal program could end Sept. 30, said Lowell Kepke, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration.
The deadline has caused concern among refugee advocates, who point out that some of these legal immigrants aren't able to pass the citizenship exam or can't yet apply because of delays processing their green cards.
The refugees, asylees and other humanitarian immigrants are admitted to the U.S. because they have been victims of war, persecution or other disasters in their home countries.
"To bring them in and then place them in jeopardy is really unfortunate and tragic," said Robert Carey, vice president of resettlement and migration policy at the International Rescue Committee. "It runs counter to the humanitarian principles on which the U.S. accepted them."
Ali, who lives alone in San Diego, was granted asylum from Ethiopia in 2001 and applied for a green card the next year. He waited six years to get it and can't apply for citizenship until 2011. Two weeks ago, he received a letter warning him that his only income, $845 a month in cash assistance, would soon be cut off.
"When I lose it, I don't know what will happen," said Ali, who asked that his full name not be published, because he feared it would endanger family members in Ethiopia. "I am 79 years old, so I can't work."
Most immigrants are required to show that they have a job, family or other means of support in the U.S., but that is not the case for people admitted through humanitarian programs. They were once offered unrestricted access to the Supplemental Security Income program, which provides monthly checks to elderly, blind and disabled people with little or no income.
That access was reduced to seven years when Congress decided in 1996 to require citizenship for many federal benefits. Supporters of the change argued that it would encourage humanitarian immigrants to become citizens.
A two-year extension was approved with bipartisan support in 2008 for those who had already been in the country seven years without becoming citizens. They can receive one more year of benefits if they have an application pending or are waiting to take the oath of citizenship, Kepke said.
Carey said some people had tried repeatedly to pass the citizenship exam, but were too elderly or traumatized to learn English. They include some of the Vietnamese people who fought alongside Americans in the Vietnam War and were held for years in "re-education camps." Others are housebound or have difficulty paying the $595 to $675 application fees and do not realize help is available.
In California, refugees and those granted asylum can apply for the state's Cash Assistance Program for Immigrants if they lose their Supplemental Security Income, said Lizelda Lopez, spokeswoman for the California Department of Social Services. But she said the program is not open to people who entered the country under other humanitarian programs, including immigrants from Cuba and Haiti or victims of sex trafficking.
Not all states have these programs, so refugee advocates are urging Congress to pass another year's extension to allow a permanent solution to be found. Jonathan Blazer, an attorney with the National Immigration Law Center, estimated it would cost the federal government about $20 million.
Carey has suggested waivers for those who can't complete the naturalization process. But other advocates worry that some elderly and disabled people would struggle with the bureaucracy. They say eligibility for Supplemental Security Income should no longer be tied to citizenship.
"Without this, we are leaving our vulnerable residents behind," Gideon Aronoff, president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, said in a recent statement, "and not living up to our nation's promise of providing refuge to the persecuted and dispossessed."